What a weird episode. After the high energy of The Last Place You Look, this one slows down the action shortly into it, and it doesn't really pick back up until the very end, which feels like the end of a season. But then, there's still another episode after this.
It's hard to fault Telltale for switching up the formula a bit, but it feels like the first season is essentially complete at this point, and anything that could happen during the final episode will just be a lead-in to the next season. It might be better if this were just a four-episode series.
Minecraft: Story Mode: A Block and a Hard Place (iOS, Mac, PC [reviewed], PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, PlayStation Vita, Wii U, Xbox 360, Xbox One)
Developer: Telltale Games
Publisher: Telltale Games
Released: December 22, 2015 (Mac, PC)
MSRP: $4.99, $24.99 (Season Pass)
Rig: AMD Phenom II X2 555 @ 3.2 GHz, with 4GB of RAM, ATI Radeon HD 5700, Windows 7 64-bit
Where the first two episodes in the season induced apathy, this one causes ambivalence. It's a fine distinction: I was struggling to care about Jesse and his friends at first; now I care enough but find myself disappointed with the final result. For every beat Minecraft: Story Mode hits well, it stumbles once or twice.
On the one hand, the more deliberate progression of this episode can be a good thing. It opens up the gameplay to include actual (albeit easy) puzzles along with the standard dialogue trees and quick-time events. Also, without lulls in the action, it could be bombastic to the point of grating. If it's always high energy, then it's all the same.
On the other hand, the plodding of the first half of this episode is as dull as can be. There's a horse travel montage near the beginning illustrating just how far it is to get to the Farlands, and protagonist Jesse has the option of the classic whine “Are we there yet?” Even with the cuts of the montage, I felt the same. I get it; it's far. Let's move on.
Once the action finally does pick up at the end, it still treads a questionable path. The full story about The Order of the Stone is revealed, and it plays out as foreshadowed. It's always a little awkward when a story treats something like an earth-shattering reveal when most would see it coming from the hints in previous episodes. Perhaps if I had led the life Jesse did, it would have been more impactful.
Then, almost as if checking off all the Telltale boxes, we get another character death. This loss feels more important than the one in the third episode, since it's a likable character. Death in children's entertainment is nothing new (see: Bambi, The Land Before Time, Transformers ), but it generally comes with a purpose. While we'll have to wait for the fifth episode, my sneaking suspicion is the only reason this death was written in was a cynical attempt at eliciting emotion.
The really strange part of the whole scene is that in the middle of the mourning (when I have a full pout on my face), Story Mode lets loose a visual gag referencing the source material. Admittedly, it's probably the funniest thing in the whole episode — so few of the jokes are worth even a chuckle — but it feels wrong to have it punctuate the rest of the sad scene so bluntly.
With the Wither Storm properly defeated, Jesse and the gang are proclaimed to be the new Order of the Stone, and A Block and a Hard Place ends with the vague promise of new adventures coming in the next episode. Unless it's tightly written and self-contained, I'm not interested. More likely, the last episode will open up a can of worms that won't get resolved until Season Two.
This episode could very well be considered the finale for the first season. It wraps up the Wither Storm saga, it answers the questions about the Order of the Stone, and it delivers a semi-happy, hopeful ending for the crew. If only it did that without an utterly boring first half and the clumsy insertion of mandatory Telltale story elements, it might have also been a good ending.